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What same-sex marriage is and isn't: 6-30-15

Now that I'm back from the National Society of Newspaper Columnists' annual conference in Indianapolis, I want to say a few words of comfort to people -- especially Christians -- who, unlike me, did not welcome the recent U.S. Supreme Court decision making same-sex marriage legal across the country.

Same-sex-marriageThe court did not change a thing about Christian marriage. It had no power to do so. If your congregation or denomination does not wish to perform marriages for same-sex couples, it doesn't have to, though it may feel pressure.

The reality is that in most weddings in churches, two ceremonies take place. One is a civil marriage, in which the pastor serves as an agent for the state. The other is a religious wedding, in which the pastor serves as an agent for the church. (In some traditions, the pastor is just an observer, watching as the man and woman marry themselves.)

These two ceremonies should be separate, in my view. Not having them be so leads to the kind of church-state confusion that clearly plagues many people opposed to same-sex marriage.

If every couple -- straight or gay -- wanting to be married were required to have a civil ceremony, that confusion would end. After that ceremony, those who want to have their union blessed by a faith community could ask for that. The faith community is free to say yes or no.

Under that system, we have both equality under the law and religious liberty.

There, now. That wasn't so hard, was it?

And yet we have lots of people making comments like the one by a pastor in this New York Times piece: "We cannot accept or adhere to any legal, political or cultural redefinition of biblical marriage, nor will we conduct or endorse same-sex ceremonies." The court did not redefine biblical marriage (which is what?). Rather, it said that same-sex couples have the same civil rights as heterosexual couples when it comes to being recognized by the state as a legally married couple.

The truth is that the Bible really has nothing useful to say about homosexuality -- and certainly nothing that would require people who hold the Bible to be the word of God to condemn homosexuals or homosexuality. (For my essay that explains what I just said, look under the "Check this out" headline on the right side of this page.)

The rapid change in public opinion about LGBTQ people (a change that took only hundreds of years to be an overnight success) has been remarkable. I am thrilled that compassion, open-heartedness and respect are winning the day.

For people who remain opposed to same-sex marriage, I can hope only that they understand they don't have to get such a marriage. All they need to do is understand that their fellow citizens deserve equality under the law -- and thanks to the Supreme Court they now have it.

(I thought attorney Jessica Eaves Mathews did a good job of making the church-state point that I'm trying to make here in this Facebook post. And I was pleased to see this piece about Janie Spahr, a retired Presbyterian pastor who has worked for equity for LGBTQ people in the church for years.)

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WDT-LegacyI was profoundly honored this past Friday evening in Indianapolis to receive the National Society of Newspaper Columnists' "Legacy Award," for what my new plaque calls "extraordinary duty" to NSNC over the years. I served the organization as vice president and then president in the early 1990s. Later I was archivist and have been active in many other ways with this kicky group that helps columnists be better at what they do. We move our annual conference around each year. Last year we were in Washington, D.C., and next year we will be in the Los Angeles area. In 1995 I was conference host here in Kansas City. If you know columnists who are not yet NSNC members, ask them why the heck not and give them the website.

Faith news while I'm gone: 6-29-15

INDIANAPOLIS -- I've been here several days attending the annual conference of the National Society of Newspaper Columnists, of which I used to be president.

NewsI expect to get back to regular blogging here tomorrow, but while I work my way back to a normal routine, here are a couple of places where you can find up-to-date news about matters of religion:

* Religion News Service.

* Pew Research Center on Religion and Public Life.

And if you haven't read the various essays I offer readers under the "Check this out" headline you'll find on the right side of this page, have a look.

Thanks for being a reader here.

Come back tomorrow and see what astonishing surprises and brilliance I have in store for you.

Jesus didn't stop the shooting: 6-27-28/15


One of the inevitable questions about murder, chaos, evil, is why God didn't do something to stop it, assuming that God is all-powerful, all-knowing, all-loving.

It's a question people have been asking again and again after the recent massacre of nine black people at a church in Charleston, S.C.

"Jesus did not show up and spare anyone," Elizabeth Schurman, a former Kansas City teacher now living in Brooklyn, wrote in this blog post.

It's exactly what someone needs to have said, to have taken note of. It is a pure shout at God, and sometimes that's what we humans need to do, as the remarkable book of Job showed.

Schurman, unlike many Christians, understands that mostly Jesus won't show up but that we can and must be Christ for one another. She writes of the story of Jesus sleeping through a storm until his disciples woke him up and ask if he didn't care if they died in the storm:

"Jesus was just a person, he slept like people do, he had to. Christ, though, is always awake, and you should call him when you’re upset, how else will He know? All those numbers in your phone, a good number of those are Christ, as are most people standing next to you waiting for the light to change and the people sitting at the bar."

It's part of what makes the Christian faith so damned difficult. You have to be Christ for one another. And you have to recognize that you will always be an inadequate Christ. Every time. But you do the best you can. And you ask forgiveness for what you didn't get right.

I have said many times that the old theodicy question -- Why is there suffering and evil in a world if God is good? -- is the open wound of religion. We don't have a complete answer that satisfies everyone.

What we have, instead, is one another. That, and trust that God can teach us how to minister to those in need, those in pain, those whose suffering is beyond our own.

(The photo here today is one I took on a much calmer Sea of Galilee in Israel than the sea was in the Jesus story.)

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INDIANAPOLIS -- While I'm here in Indiana this week for the annual conference of the National Society of Newspaper Columnists, I won't be adding the usual second item to the daily blog.

America's religion: consumerism: 6-26-15

The other day in a post here on the blog, I mentioned, almost in passing, that the primary religion of Americans seems to be consumerism.

ConsumerismNow comes Bruce P. Rittenhouse, an ethics professor, who makes that very claim based on research. He writes:

"My own research on consumerism supports the conclusion that the reason Americans remain attached to a consumeristic form of life is because it performs the religious function of providing them with an answer to the existential problem of meaning."

In the New Testament book of Matthew (6:21), Jesus is quoted this way: "For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also."

And just to stand on the side of the culture and observe it as an outsider, one would have to conclude that for many Americans our treasure is in material things and, thus, that is where you find our hearts.

Historically what is called "consumer spending" in America in the last dozen or so years has amounted to 60 to 70 percent of the gross domestic product. Some of this consumer spending, of course, is for necessities such as clothing. But there's clothing and then there's clothing. There are products that were wild luxuries 10 years ago that have become almost necessities today. We want the latest, the best.

In some ways it's a sickness, and what we consume becomes our god. This was something that Sayyid Qutb noticed about Americans when he left his native Egypt in the late 1940s and spent two years in the U.S. He wrote about his impressions of a culture that, even then, was deeply materialistic and, he thought, sexually immoral. His thinking influenced a whole generation (and more) of Muslims, and he became sort of the theological father of political Islam and even many Islamists.

When we live the way we live, people notice. Sometimes they want to join us in that kind of lifestyle, but some also see it for its essential emptiness and want nothing to do with it. In the end, consumerism need not be our religion. But we got some conversion work to do.

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INDIANAPOLIS -- While I'm here in Indiana this week for the annual conference of the National Society of Newspaper Columnists, I won't be adding the usual second item to the daily blog.


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P.S.: I will comment on today's welcome U.S. Supreme Court decision on same-sex marriage next week after I return from Indianapolis.


Finding domestic violence solutions: 6-25-15

Another thing that an uncritical, literalistic reading of the Bible can produce is what Jim Wallis, founder of Sojourners, calls "a false theology of power and dominance.”

Stop-domestic-violence-logoWhich is to say that by reading certain New Testament passages as suggesting that women must always and everywhere be submissive to men -- especially in marriages -- one unfortunate result can be what Carolyn Custis James, a theologian and author, calls "a relational system that can easily lead to violence and others forms of abuse.”

This matter of domestic abuse was the subject of a recent conference in Washington, the Sojourners Summit, and it's way past time that all communities of faith think seriously about what they can do to stop the pervasive, but often ignored, problem of domestic abuse.

One source of domineering thinking about women comes from the Apostle Paul's letter to the Ephesians. But, as often happens, people who want to keep women submissive rarely quote the whole of the passage, focusing, instead, on verse 22 of chapter 5: "Wives, submit yourselves to your own husbands as you do to the Lord." That verse, however, is preceded by this one: "Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ." Then the letter suggests ways for wives to submit to husbands and for husbands to submit to wives. Beyond that, Paul was addressing a particular situation in a particular place. To make his words to the Ephesians 2,000 years ago unbreakable instructions for all Christians in all times and places is a wild stretch.

These are the sorts of things that Christian congregations would do well to unpack together as they figure out what they can do to stop the persistent presence of domestic violence -- a presence that continues to require many battered women's shelters all across the nation.

I find it a hopeful sign that Sojourners, an evangelically based organization that advocates a progressive social justice agenda, is focusing on the issue of domestic violence. And if your congregation -- of whatever faith -- isn't providing resources and help for victims of this crime, it's time to do so. And when I say of "whatever faith," I include Islam, which has long struggled with how to interpret a particular verse in the Qur'an (4:34), which in many translations allows husbands in some circumstances to "hit them," referring to their wives. However, in Laleh Bakhtiar's translation, called The Sublime Quran, she insists that is an incorrect translation and that the phrase "hit them" should be translated "go away from them."

In any case, all faiths should be looking at the sources of and solutions to domestic violence.

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INDIANAPOLIS -- While I'm here in Indiana this week for the annual conference of the National Society of Newspaper Columnists, I won't be adding the usual second item to the daily blog.

The call to ecological care: 6-24-15

Because of its significance in speaking to an issue that is not ever going to go away, I return today to the recent encyclical on ecology from Pope Francis, "Laudato Si," or "Praise Be."

Encyclical-environIf you have read about it but not actually read it, the link in the previous paragraph will give you a chance to explore the document itself on the Vatican's website.

Pay special attention to his opening words, which quote the saint after whom he took his name, Francis: "Saint Francis of Assisi reminds us that our common home is like a sister with whom we share our life and a beautiful mother who opens her arms to embrace us." Then the pope begins truth-telling:

"This sister now cries out to us because of the harm we have inflicted on her by our irresponsible use and abuse of the goods with which God has endowed her. We have come to see ourselves as her lords and masters, entitled to plunder her at will. The violence present in our hearts, wounded by sin, is also reflected in the symptoms of sickness evident in the soil, in the water, in the air and in all forms of life. This is why the earth herself, burdened and laid waste, is among the most abandoned and maltreated of our poor; she 'groans in travail' (Rom 8:22). We have forgotten that we ourselves are dust of the earth (cf. Gen 2:7); our very bodies are made up of her elements, we breathe her air and we receive life and refreshment from her waters."

The pontiff is exactly right about our relationship to our environment. As I've written before, there is something in us (stardust, if you will) that is older than we ourselves. We are warp and woof with the environment, and when we treat it as a commodity to be consumed, not only do we injure ourselves and our descendants, we insult the creation itself along with its creator.

One of our problems as a society, of course, is that although we individually can take certain actions to reduce our carbon footprint and aid the environment, governmental policy and corporate practices can make a much bigger difference -- and we sometimes feel that those areas are beyond our control.

Not only that, but what Pope Francis said in his letter does not find a ready and willing audience among leaders of either the Republican or the Democratic parties in the U.S., as this New Republic piece notes: "As we look toward our next national election, it is evident that neither major political party in America is a natural home for the kind of moral ecology Francis envisions. This is not a new observation, but perhaps Francis’s success at commanding the attention of the media combined with his interest in reaching out to young people will press the issue to the forefront."

Perhaps. But it will take the rest of us not being silent to make a difference.

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What can it mean when family members of some of those murdered in a Charleston, S.C., church say they forgive the shooter? Jonathan Merritt of Religion News Service ponders that here. In such cases, forgiveness can seem both radically complicated and radically simple. I think it's more the former than the latter.

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LOGANSPORT, Ind. -- I'm on the road heading to the National Society of Newspaper Columnists annual conference in Indianapolis this weekend. So when my National Catholic Reporter column posts today (probably about 10 a.m. CDT), I won't be able to give you a direct link to it. But you will find it here. You can follow the NSNC goings-on at the group's website to which I've linked you and by searching on Twitter for #NSNC15.

A voice for racial justice: 6-23-15

Just a night after the despicable murder of nine people at a Bible study in a South Carolina church, several hundred of us gathered in Kansas City to honor a retiring pastor who has dedicated much of his ministry to tearing down racial barriers and creating what Martin Luther King Jr. called the Beloved Community.

Bob-Hill-2015The Rev. Robert Lee Hill (pictured here), senior minister of Community Christian Church in Kansas City, will preach his final sermon this Sunday before taking formal retirement. Bob has held that job since 1987. A few years after starting there he began his job as host of a Sunday morning radio call-in show, "Religion on the Line," and also began working with countless other Kansas Citians to work toward a community in which racial justice mattered.

I wish the man accused of the Charleston, S.C., shootings at Emanuel A.M.E. Church had been blessed to have a Bob Hill in his life. Maybe it would have made a difference, though, of course, we can't be sure even of that. It was Bob's influence on all kinds of people that won him such awards as the 2014 Justice Award from the Jewish Community Relations Bureau-American Jewish Committee, the 2006 Daniel L. Brenner Interfaith Award from Harmony's National Conference for Community and Justice and the 1999 Evelyn Wasserstrom Award from the Southern Christian Leadership Conference's Greater Kansas City chapter.

I've been privileged to know Bob for many years, to have been a fairly regular speaker at his congregation's annual Good Friday service and to serve with him on the board of Kansas City Hospice and Palliative Care.

And one thing is clear to me about Bob Hill: He's far from the stereotypical white liberal bleeding heart seeking to create kumbaya moments so he can feel good. He's much more interested in listening to people in pain and looking for ways to ease that pain, whether the source of the pain is the deep racism that still infects many Americans and many American systems or whether the source is the discriminatory ways that people of faiths other than Christianity experience life in the U.S. In the same way, all of us should be focused on how, finally, we can overcome America's two primary birth defects -- slavery and guns.

I have no idea what it would have taken to prevent a 21-year-old white man in South Carolina from marinating in racism deeply enough to want to murder black people. What I do know is that Bob Hill and the hundreds of people who gathered to honor him -- including his close friend, Rep. Emanuel Cleaver II, D-Mo., also a pastor -- are actively looking to find such answers. And I'm confident that Bob will continue that work even after he leaves Community Christian.

(When I learned last year that Bob was going to retire, I wrote two blog entries about him based on an interview with him. You can find them here and here.)

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Russell Moore, president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, says he's "conflicted" about the Confederate flag being part of the Mississippi state flag. But then he disproves that by taking the right position that the Confederate flag should come down everywhere in the wake of the massacre in Charleston, S.C. Indeed, that should happen. The flag stood not just for slavery but for rebellion against the United States. It belongs only in museums.

Confidence in faith communities falls: 6-22-15

New opinion polling shows that Americans' confidence in "organized religion" has fallen to a record low.

Religious-scamIf you are surprised by this, you apparently failed to be aware of any of these news stories in the last 60 years:

* Some churches, especially in the South, fought against civil rights.

* For at least the early years of the Vietnam War (in Vietnam it's called the American War), many religious leaders seemed more interested in love-it-or-leave-it patriotism than in recognizing that our government's leaders were lying to us in so many ways.

* Many congregations encouraged white flight from our cities by themselves becoming a part of the move to the suburbs instead of becoming part of the solution where they were.

* Money and sex scandals galore. For starters, Google such moral midgets as Jim Bakker, Ted Haggard and Jimmy Swaggart.

* Many religious leaders failed to lead in the fight for liberation of LGBTQ folks, often preferring to spew bigotry, instead.

* The sexual abuse scandal in the Catholic Church rocked American Catholicism, though forthright, open ways of dealing weren't chosen by such people as (now former) Bishop Robert W. Finn of the Kansas City-St. Joseph Diocese.

Need I go on? I'm guessing you could add another dozen or two to this list. And I've not said anything about international stories about religion, ranging from al-Qaida and ISIS to extremism by Hindus and even Buddhists.

There's also the matter of a larger percentage of the American population being unaffiliated with any religion. As the story to which I've linked you notes:

"A Pew Research survey this year finds nearly 23 percent of Americans say they don’t identify with any religion. The Gallup data — which combined this group with non-Christians — finds only 10 percent of these had a great deal or quite a lot of confidence in religion."

The sad part of this whole trend to me is that there are lots of people who are spiritually hungry, who have good eternal questions, who need help finding meaning in their lives -- all things faith communities should be good at (and many are). But when the primary religion of America is consumerism, those connections don't get made as often as they should or could.

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People of faith in Charleston are responding well to the terrorist who assaulted one of their churches last week. Their actions, attitudes and comments are what can contribute to people regaining confidence in faith communities.

The myth of America's religious birth: 6-20/21-15

As we Americans move toward another Independence Day celebration on the Fourth of July, we almost certainly will hear repeats of various versions of how and why the United States was founded.

Inventing-Christian-AmHere are some elements of the founding stories that have been -- and continue to be -- prominent:

* We were founded as a Christian nation.

* God chose the U.S. to be a beacon of freedom to the world.

* Our first settlers came here to escape religious persecution and, once they had set up communities, insisted on religious liberty for all.

* Our founding documents, especially the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, are testaments to the deep religious -- usually Protestant/evangelical Christian -- faith of the founders and provide a path to keep America a nation of faithful people far into the future, a future safely in the hands of Divine Providence.

Or, alternatively:

* Most of the Founding Fathers were Deists as products of the Enlightenment and they let religious language slip into civic discourse and some of the founding documents without really meaning much of it.

There's more, but you get the idea, and if you've been paying the least bit of attention as a resident of the U.S., you've heard all that and more in various forms.

But how much of it is literal history and how much of it is historical myth created to shape the story of the nation?

Steven K. Green, in his expansively researched and eminently readable new book, Inventing a Christian America: The Myth of the Religious Founding, leans heavily toward the latter, and does so persuasively. (The book has a July 1 publication date but can be ordered now.)

Green, a professor of law and director of the Center for Religion, Law and Democracy at Willamette University, does not come off here as a far-left agnostic/atheist out to dismiss any role of religion in the nation's founding. Not at all. Rather, he wants us to know that the story of the role religion played in the creation of the U.S. is complicated, nuanced and easy to misconstrue. Indeed, the people who try to sell you the statements in the five bullet points above do exactly that.

Green puts it this way:

"In short, the idea of America's religiously inspired founding was a consciously created myth constructed by the second generation of Americans in their quest to forge a national identity, one that would reinforce their ideals and aspirations for the new nation. This process of reinterpreting the founding began as early as the late 1790s but gained momentum in the second decade of the following century as a new generation of leaders arose who had little first-hand knowledge of the founding period. In seeking to construct a national identity that conformed to their own religious sentimentalities and political aspirations, they invented a myth of America's Christian path. The myth was not intentionally deceptive -- in fact, it was quite the opposite. Proponents sought to uncover a more 'accurate' explanation for the momentous events that had transpired a generation earlier."

For Green, the term "myth" does not mean some false account designed to make a point but, rather, a "unifying narrative" that seeks to explain how things happened the way they did.

One of the strengths of this book is that the author has dug through extensive original sources and then sought to interpret the words and thinking in those sources not through 21st Century eyes but through the eyes of the times in which they were written or spoken. He acknowledges that "attempts to resolve the controversy over America's religious origins are generally doomed to failure," but -- unlike, say, a Bill O'Reilly who dreams up such inanities as a "War on Christmas" when he wants to talk about religion -- Green considers the evidence and draws unemotional conclusions based on a reasonable reading of the facts.

As Green notes, "The fundamental problem with the Christian nation debate lies in how various sides use the historical data and the assumptions they draw from that evidence." And, he says, "a fundamental error among proponents of America's Christian origins is that they tend to accept the substance of founding-era statements at face value." Or, as I say, as if words back then had no context different from those same words said or written today.

XianflagThe fact is that the United States wasn't born a mature adult in a flash. As Green writes, "The creation of the United States was a slow, protracted process, with conceptions of nationhood coming much later for most people." In the same way, Christianity itself was not born in an instant (no matter what Pentecost Sunday preachers say). Rather, it slowly and often reluctantly parted from the First Century Judaisms (plural) that gave it birth. In that way, to call Pentecost the "birthday of the church" is a founding myth similar to the bullet-pointed myths about the U.S. that I listed above.

The idea that all the early settlers in America practiced and advocated religious liberty for all is simply untrue. Indeed, many groups that came to this country wanted to create, if not theocracies, at least societies that would conform to the religious norms the groups advocated. But after the American Revolution, the notion of religious liberty became much more enshrined and "was unprecedented and advanced among the nations at the time." And that's worth celebrating, even if sometimes freedom was more of a theory than a reality in some places. Before the Revolution, of course, it was a different story: "Even affording mere toleration to dissenting beliefs and practices was alien to Puritans," Green reports.

This is a thoughtful book that I hope finds a wide audience because of our need today as Americans to understand our own history so we can honor what should be honored, acknowledge what should never have happened and create a future that is in harmony with our core values, which in many ways have religious roots, though often not in the ways the national creation myths suggest.

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Tabgha-4I read with great sadness this story about a fire in northern Israel that gutted part of the Church of the Loaves and Fishes. I visited that pilgrimage site in 2012 and took this photo of the fish that are kept in a small pool there as a reminder of the New Testament story of Jesus feeding thousands of people by starting with just a little bread and a few fish. If, as seems likely, this was a case of arson, I hope the perpetrators are caught and given the toughest penalty possible. An attack on anyone's sacred space is an attack on everyone's, as the horrific shootings in Charleston, S.C., this week proved one again.

A surprising same-sex court ruling? 6-19-15

My regular readers know that I favor marriage equality for gays and lesbians. And that I find no biblical warrant to consider homosexuality a sin. For my essay on that subject, look under the "Check this out" headline on the right side of this page.

US-Sup-CT-2014I have argued for years that the best way to solve the national dispute over same-sex marraige is to require all couples -- straight or gay -- who want to be married to get a civil marriage first. That establishes equality under the law. Then, if a couple wants a faith community to bless their union, they would be free to seek that out. And any faith community legally could say yes or no, depending on its theology.

How the U.S. Supreme Court will rule on the matter of marriage equality soon will be known. And my guess and hope is that the court will side with those who favor equality under the law.

But I've just discovered a possible surprising way that the court could rule that might delay a final decision for a year or two but, in the end, would resolve the issue in an equitable way, at least according to the author of this Slate piece.

As the piece notes, "The potential for this particular surprise lies in the way the gay couples in Obergefell v. Hodges have asked the court — with the support of the federal government — to decide the case. They’re seeking not just the recognition of a constitutional right to same-sex marriage, but a decision doing so on the basis of a legal doctrine called 'heightened scrutiny.'”

What is "heightened scrutiny?" To quote the Slate piece again: "The label refers to a more muscular form of judicial review — the kind laws that distinguish on the basis of race and gender receive. Because heightened scrutiny applies to these and a handful of other 'suspect classifications,' the government must provide a compelling reason to justify any distinction it seeks to make along those lines. . .Simply put, for gay rights advocates, if marriage equality is the battle, heightened scrutiny is the war."

The author of the Slate piece, an attorney, doesn't think the court will offer this surprise, though she's hopeful.

What I hope we can avoid is the kind of decades-long, bitter dispute about this that has marked the aftermath of the court's 1970s abortion decision. We don't need pitched battles on this issue, too. We've got enough on our cultural plates and the court would do well to issue a ruling that will find wide acceptance -- as same-sex marriage itself is now doing.

(The photo of the U.S. Supreme Court building here is one I took just a year ago when I was in Washington for the annual conference of the National Society of Newspaper Columnists.)

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When a 21-year-old white man murders people at a Bible study in a historically black church, one of the few things we can do that makes any sense is to weep with those who weep and mourn with those who mourn. What we don't yet know is whether this was a case of mental instability or a matter of terrible ideas about race driving someone to deadly action. Or, I suppose, both.

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P.S.: The week of Aug. 3-9, I will be at Ghost Ranch, the national Presbyterian conference center in northern New Mexico, teaching a class I'm calling "Writing Your Spiritual Will." The second link in the previous sentence will give you all you need to know to sign up, and I hope you will do that.